by Lee Becker
The Oconee County Board of Education last week agreed to spend approximately $350,000 for the remainder of the school year to increase the pay schedule for bus drivers in an effort to recruit and retain needed drivers.
The board took this action after hearing a report from Oconee County Schools Chief Human Resources Officer Justin Cofer, who said that despite a string of initiatives, the vacancy rate for bus drivers increased from 22 percent in May of last year to 31 percent as of January of 2024.
Cofer also told the board that Oconee County, prior to the board action, ranked seventh out of 12 area school systems in starting pay for bus drivers, and 12th in ending pay.
Based on the posted salary schedule on the system website, the new schedule represents a 14.3 percent increase for entry level salaries and a 48.1 percent increase for drivers with 21 or more years of service.
Cofer said that “one of the primary functions of the Human Resources Division is the recruitment and retention of both certified and classified staff.”
“While we are certainly concerned with all staff and job families, we must pay particular attention to the jobs that are the hardest to fill,” he continued, “and as you can see by the vacancy rates before you, our bus drivers consistently represent this category.”
Cofer said that in the last two years, OCS had “implemented a series of initiatives to recruit for all of our job families,” and he listed six that had been “targeted toward our transportation shortage.” Certified staff, as well as classified staff, were given the opportunity to become bus drivers, tuition was dropped for children of drivers, a contribution was made to a retirement savings account, driver training was paid and recruitment events were held.
“While these initiatives have aided in recruiting new drivers,” Cofer said, “they have not been able to create enough interest to meet our needs.”
Vacancy rates have increased from 12 percent in May of 2021 to 31 percent at present, Cofer reported. The system had 58 bus drivers on Friday, according to OCS Director of Communications Steven Colquitt.
“In analyzing our growing vacancy rate,” Cofer said, “we decided to look at a comparison of the bus driver pay scales for other districts in our RESA.” The Northeast Georgia Regional Education Service Agency (RESA), based in Winterville, serves 13 school districts in 10 counties in Northeast Georgia.
Cofer told the board he was able to obtain data for 12 school systems, and OCS ranks seven out of the 12 districts in terms of starting pay. Cofer presented the entry level salary for OCS, which based on the posted pay schedule on the system website, was $18 per hour. That translates into approximately $16,200 for 180 days at five hours per day.
Cofer said OCS ranked 12 out of the 12 systems in terms of ending pay.
The pay for a driver with 21 years of experience or more on the web site was $21.14 per hour, which translates into approximately $19,000 for 180 days at five hours a day.
With the changes approved by the board, the entry level pay increases, retroactive to Jan. 1, to $20.57, which translates to $18,513 for 180 days at five hours a day. And the change will result in an hourly rate of $31.32 for drivers with 21 or more years of experience, or $28,188 per 180 days at five hours a day, as is was listed on the slide Cofer presented.
According to Cofer, the changes “will place Oconee in the top three for starting pay, first in the RESA in ending pay, and provide a raise each and every year that a driver works for the district, outpacing the scales of other districts in our RESA.”
Board member Tim Burgess asked Cofer for the cost of the change in the schedule, and he said “for the remainder of this school year, anticipated cost is roughly $350,000.”
OCS Chief Financial Officer LaWanda Hankins presented the board with financial reports. She reported that November collections from the Education Local Option Sales Tax (ELOST) were up 5.1 percent over November of last year, the second month in the last year when collections were up less than 10 percent over a year earlier.
Collections over the last 14 months are averaging 14.7 percent higher than the same month a year earlier, Hankins stated. The General Fund Cash Balance increased to $71.4 million in December, up from $39.5 million in November, as property tax revenue flowed into the account, according to Hankins’ report.
“Ad valorem taxes, specifically, we’re 95 percent collected,” Hankins said. “That’s really, really good.”
The budget report Hankins presented to the board lists $47.0 million in projected ad valorem taxes, with $44.7 million received.
Unspent funds in the Education the ELOST V budget stand at $8.3 million, with spending incomplete on modifications to three system schools and for buses, according to one of the reports presented by Hankins.
Collections for ELOST V ended a year ago, and $10.8 million has been collected for ELOST VI.
That account is showing $5.4 million in unspent funds, but spending continues on Dove Creek Middle School, the Malcom Bridge Middle School classroom additions, the New Instructional Support Center, and technology systemwide.
Hankins told the board that the “District received guidance over the break regarding the retention supplement awarded by Governor Kemp.”
“Just over $900,000 was received from the state, and the district will need to contribute an additional $170,000 to ensure all eligible staff members receive the supplement,” she said.
“Board members, you’ll recall Oconee County Schools was awarded the Safer Georgia Schools Grant earlier this school year,” OCS Associate Superintendent Dallas LeDuff said as he began his report.
The school system received $250,000, according to an Aug. 9, 2023, announcement. LeDuff reported that the school system decided to use the funds for additional security cameras and additional access controls at school facilities.
OCS received 13 bids for the cameras, and that Superintendent Branch recommended that the board award $120,274 to Transcend for the cameras. LeDuff said “between 40 and 50 cameras” will be added.
OCS received four bids for Access Control. Branch recommended that low bidder Atlanta Access Controls Inc. receive the award of $53,468.
In other action at the Monday meeting, the board agreed to spend $1.4 million for 3,526 Chromebook computers and $78,400 for 98 desktop computers, with the money coming from the ELOST and General Fund.
The board also voted to contribute $170,000 to the $900,000 received from the state as part of the retention supplement program of Gov. Brian Kemp so all eligible employees can receive the supplement.
Lee Becker is a retired journalism professor and resident of Oconee County. A longer version of this story originally appeared on his blog, oconeecountyobservations.org.